Sunday, March 18, 2007

THE FOURTH WEEK IN LENT: THE PROMISED LAND

A Prodigal People

The LORD said to Joshua, "Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt." And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.

While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.


Be careful of what you pray for, say the wise ones. For it might just come to pass.

With the fourth week of Lent, our story takes a surprising turn. Up until now, we have been dealing with narrowness, loss and uncertainty: Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Abram’s wanderings in it, Moses’ exile beyond its fringe. We have pondered the Passover, the parting of waters, the mysteries of chaos. We have been wanderers on the face of the earth.

And now, suddenly, our wanderings are done. Egypt, the narrow land, lies behind us, and at last we enter the “good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” We have come into the country that God promised to Moses on that strange and lonely day beyond the wilderness. All the disgrace of slavery is rolled away. Not only are we free, but we’re rich. Not only do I no longer need God to feed me, my dad has enough money for me to take my trust fund and go off to a far country where I may recover from the stress of success.

In this spirit, the fourth Sunday of Lent is sometimes called "Laetare Sunday" - from the first word of the traditional antiphon appointed by the Catholic Church for that day. “Rejoice, Jerusalem! Be glad for her, you who love her; rejoice with her, you who mourned for her, and you will find contentment at her consoling breasts.” On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we come home. The manna from God ceases and we eat the produce of the land. Our eyes are opened anew, our hunger is satisfied, and our forced wanderings cease.

This is the moment in fairy tales when we read, “and they lived happily ever after.” And were the Bible a fairy tale, that is precisely where it would have ended, with the Israelites going happily over the Jordan, which also parted for them, into the beautiful kingdom promised them by God. But the Bible is not a fairy tale. If it is not precisely human history, which it cannot precisely be since its main character is God, it is not sparing in its depiction of the human condition. It shows us, those who lived in the ancient Mediterranean and those of us descended from them, exactly who we are, from the wisest and most tender, to ourselves at our most vile, believing, in our guise of the Roman empire, that we can get rid of God by simply executing him. Although today’s entry into the promised land is relatively quiet, it won’t be for long. Compared to the few Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea during the Exodus, thousands now perish by the sword as the Israelites take possession of what is theirs. From the very beginning, the promised land will be a place of war and slaughter, a place where Israel experiences terrible conflict with their neighbors, with themselves and with their God.

This is not to say that the Israelites should be singled out for censure. Biologically, human beings are territorial mammals and territories must be defended. Israel expressed its territoriality as a God thing. Our God is a jealous God and the purity of our worship must not be tainted by idolatry. Therefore, to spare us having to deal with your idolatry, God has ordered us to kill you all.

Questions of the land, questions of territory have haunted us for centuries. Who is entitled to live where we do? Just because God gave us the promised land, does that mean we own it? Is God a heavenly realtor handing out title deeds? Does being in a place give us the right to keep others out, to declare some people legal and others illegal? Just what does the land mean? Are the gifts of God there for us to use in any way that we want? Are we doing the right thing when we set ourselves apart from our neighbors?

Or as the Pharisees say, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them," as if the only way to live in distressing times is to declare some people correct and designate others untouchables, undocumented, unclean -- every age has its own way of expressing it. The only way I can be absolutely sure of what I am in troubling times, is to tell you what you are not.

So Jesus told them about a prodigal son.

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